Northern Rhône’s Best Value: JL Chave St. Joseph ‘Offerus’, April 2007

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Dear New York Vintners Friends,

The idyllic, steep banks of the northern Rhône river produce some of the best wines in France. Despite heavy industrialization, the Rhône retains much of the beauty and fertile soil that has made it an exemplary growing region for centuries. Its climate is continental, with hard winters and warm summers and the steep banks maximize the effect of available sunlight. Clinging to these sharp inclines are several large family holdings producing the region’s top wines. Some appellations, like St-Joseph and Crozes-Hermitage, have expanded away from the banks and onto flatter land to increase production. Still, total output across the region rarely exceeds that of a single appellation in the southern Rhône, such as Châteauneuf-du-Pape, and roughly half of all the wine produced in the north is Crozes-Hermitage. While wines of the southern Rhône are mostly directed to the mass market, northern Rhône produces the connoisseur’s wine. It is here that the Syrah grape gained its reputation for quality and was later brought to Australia where it is known as Shiraz. Syrah is the only red grape permitted by the AOC for the red wines of the northern Rhône. White wines produced in the region, such as the famous Condrieu and Château-Grillet, come from the Viognier grape variety which has recently experienced a major comeback after near extinction from the phylloxera insect infestation and the destruction of the first World War. Today Voigneir wines are quite popular and are often blended with Syrah to mellow the acidity of the latter and impart apricot tones, a pratice that originated in the northern Rhône and was popularized abroad. Other whites in the region, like the Crozes-Hermitage, Hermitage and Saint Péray, are produced by blending the robust Marsanne with the delicate and relatively rare Roussanne grape .

Northern Rhône wines have been produced for over two millennia. They have gained status and held consistently high prices since Marcel Guigal’s single-vineyard bottlings and controversial use of new oak created an international stir and an influx of wine-making perfectionists. We recommend some of the following wines from this top-class region and its beautiful vicinity.

JL Chave Selections 2004 St. Joseph ‘Offerus’, $26
The Offerus project started with the 1995 vintage. As the appellation of St. Joseph has expanded in size over the past few years, Jean-Louis’ goal was to search out small domaines from the heart of the appellation, with values reflecting those which he requires for making his own wine. He wanted to recreate a St. Joseph which is truly expressive of the region, rather than a homogenized version not expressive of its roots. Jean-Louis found ten domaines with which to work. In order to ensure the quality of the wines, he is in contact with the domaines throughout the growing season, during the harvest, and through the vinification. Because of this investment of time, Jean-Louis has gotten them to work organically, to produce lower yields, and to learn the importance of making a wine expressive of the terroir specific to their soil.

Domaine Jean-Louis Chave 2004 Hermitage Rouge, $220
Domaine Jean-Louis Chave 2004 St. Joseph, $54
For centuries, some of the most sought after wine in France has come from Hermitage in the northern Rhône. Even Thomas Jefferson, a noted wine expert of his day, raved about the wine from this region. Many experts feel that the greatest maker of Hermitage is Jean-Louis Chave. The Chave family has been growing grapes at Hermitage since 1481. They have a reputation for making good wine in poor years, and excellent wine in good ones. They use low yeilding vines (average age 60 years) and a late harvest to produce the ripest fruit; there is virtually no intervention in the winemaking and bottling with no filtration. There are a dozen or so named vineyards in Hermitage, and Chave owns vines in most of them. They vinify each separately, which allows them to blend for greater complexity before bottling.

Château-Grillet 2001 Château-Grillet, $98
Although the family name Neyret-Gachet appears on the label, the property producing this wine is run by André Canet who married into the family in the early 1960’s. Canet extended the vineyard’s production and by 1990 Château-Grillet’s 9 acres were producing nearly 2,000 cases. The consistently high prices maintained by this wine have as much to do with its rarity as its rank among top French wines. Traditionally, the grapes are picked earlier than Condrieu and is thus more austere and less headily perfumed.

Bernard Faurie 2000 Hermitage $108
Bernard Faurie 2001 St. Joseph Vielles Vignes, $44
Since 1980, the amiable and enthusiastic Bernard Faurie has slowly built up his holdings at Les Greffieux and Le Méal. His traditionally-made examples of Hermitage are very elegant, packed with aromas of violet and flavors of crunchy, powerful and spicy hedgerow fruit flavors, are truly worth the wait.

Patrick Jasmin 2000 Cóte Rôtie, $66
Patrick Jasmin 1999 Cóte Rôtie, $151 (Magnum)
Patrick Jasmin produces only one magnificent red with grapes produced from several different parcels spread over the appellation of Cóte Rôtie, which include the Côte Brune, Les Moutonnes and Côte Bodin climats, 2 acres in Les Baleyats, and 2 acres in the Côte Blonde. He took over the reins of the family winery after his father’s death in 1999. Half the wine is aged 590 liter barrels, half in 228 liter. The wines are never fined but see a light filtration.

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